Blue Skies, Green Jobs

After eight years of the Bush administration denying the impact of climate change, the Obama administration is trying to steer energy policy toward a more sustainable model before it’s too late.

Dick Cheney ridiculed calls for conservation, muzzled scientists who tried to raise alarms about climate change and modeled energy policy to suit his friends in the oil and gas industry. New Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson on April 17 confirmed that “the case for finding that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere endanger public health and welfare is compelling and, indeed, overwhelming,” resulting from decades of research by thousands of scientists from the US and around the world. “The evidence points ineluctably to the conclusion that climate change is upon us as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, that climatic changes are already occurring that harm our health and welfare, and that the effects will only worsen over time in the absence of regulatory action,” she announced.

With historic droughts straining water supplies in the West, glaciers and ice shelfs melting around the world at unprecedented rates and increasingly fierce hurricanes wracking the Gulf Coast, climatologists warn that there is no time to waste.

President Obama has called for Congress to authorize a cap-and-trade program to use market forces to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In his address to Congress Feb. 24, Obama asked lawmakers to send him legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution. He has set targets for reducing US emissions of 14% below 2005 levels by 2020, and approximately 83% below 2005 levels by 2050.

The president has some well-placed advocates for climate legislation in Congress but there is still plenty of resistance among the back benchers. Neither the House nor Senate budget resolutions included cap-and-trade language, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made climate change a top priority. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee on energy and the environment, replaced moderates John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), respectively. Dingell and Boucher had dragged their feet on climate change regulations.

Waxman and Markey are co-sponsoring the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which has gained support from most of America’s major environmental groups. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% below 2005 levels by 2020, 42% by 2030 and 83% by 2050. Waxman and Markey are working with Dingell and Boucher to craft a strong bill that can get out of the House this summer.

The big hurdle will be in the Senate. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a strong environmental advocate, chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, but a strong bill will have trouble attracting 60 votes to get past an expected filibuster. Last year the committee reported out the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which proposed a moderate cap-and-trade process to control carbon pollution. The Senate voted 48-26 in favor of that bill, but was 12 short of the number needed to break the filibuster.

This year Democrats hold 58 Senate seats, with another expected to go to Al Franken (DFL-Minn.) when sore loser Norm Coleman exhausts his appeals. But 10 Democratic senators representing coal-producing and heavy manufacturing states have signed a letter setting a high bar for any cap-and-trade-bill they might support. However, nine Republican senators have indicated a willingness to support some form of cap-and-trade legislation. So there is room for maneuvering.

Conservatives have charged that pollution controls will increase energy costs for families. The House Republican Conference claimed the Obama administration supports “a light switch tax that would cost every American household $3,128 a year.” Other Republicans also have cited the $3,128-a-year cost, which apparently is a distortion of research done by economists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. John Reilly, one of the MIT economists, told PolitiFact.com there is an estimated net cost to individuals of the cap-and-trade program of $30.89 per person in 2015, or $79 per family. However, revenue from cap-and-trade auctions would offset increased energy costs. Also, the Union of Concerned Scientists figured that the average American household would save $900 a year because of increased energy efficiency, even though electricity rates and gasoline prices go up slightly. And the cost of allowing climate changes to continue unabated would be disastrous.

Rebuilding cities blown away by hurricanes along the Gulf Coast isn’t going to get cheaper.

Still, many manufacturers are resisting the proposed changes. US Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) said Obama’s energy reforms amount to a declaration of war on Ohio and Indiana. “We could lose manufacturing jobs left and right,” said Latta, a freshman rep who won his seat with the support of $34,250 in oil and gas interest. But Duke University researchers reported that Ohio and Indiana are among the states that could benefit most from jobs created in a low-carbon economy. A report from Duke’s Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness, which assessed carbon-reducing technologies with potential for future green job creation, found that states that stand to benefit most from jobs in these sectors include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

The report was sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund (which has maps at edf.org listing 1,200 companies that could benefit from the green economy), the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department and Industrial Union Council, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers and United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters.

The Bush-Cheney pro-pollution economy, by contrast, already has been devastating for Ohio. The Ohio Democratic Party noted that 1,087 Ohio companies shut down factories or had mass layoffs under Bush, with the loss of 180,000 Ohio jobs.

Support of industrial unions could be key to passing the climate change bill. Among the organizations supporting carbon caps is a Blue Green Alliance of environmental and labor organizations, including the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers, which sees opportunities for jobs in the growth of renewable energy and energy-efficient industries. The Environmental Defense Fund noted that a typical wind turbine has 8,000 parts and 250 tons of steel. “Somebody’s got to make that steel, fabricate those parts, assemble those parts, deliver the assembled turbine to a wind farm, erect the turbine and manage the wind farm. That’s a lot of jobs right in the American workers’ sweet spot. And this is just one example,” EDF said at TheCapSolution.org. “A carbon cap will create demand for energy-efficient windows, LED lighting, ball bearings for turbines and thousands of other products. And by starting now, we’ll make sure these products are made here and exported all over the world, instead of becoming more products we have to import.”

United Mine Workers also supports “Clean Coal” initiatives to equip coal-fired power plants with advanced carbon capture and storage systems that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which includes the Mine Workers union, figures the new technologies could generate $1 trillion of economic output and create 7 million man-years of employment during construction and a quarter of a million permanent jobs. (We know many environmentalists choke on the term “clean coal,” but coal-fired plants will be generating electricity at least during a transition period, so they might as well be as clean as possible.)

Denial of climate change is no longer an option. Congress must pass a bill that will curb greenhouse gases and in the process creates new jobs for Americans to retool industry to accomplish what needs to be done. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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